It is quite right that professional nasty gobshite, Katie Hopkins has been roundly criticised for her vile article about sinking boats full of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe. The use of dehumanising language to describe the people on the boats, like cockroaches, has a long and inglorious history, most infamously and disastrously realised in the Nazis’ view of the Jews and other “untermenschen”.
However, it surprises me that this approach is not taken properly and more generally. Dehumanising people is bad in itself. If you believe in human rights at all, they are not something that can be selectively applied or disapplied by counting some people as sub-human. Even if you do bad things or are a bad person, you remain a person, not vermin, and others who share a common label with you, whether they be African migrants or Jews don’t become subhuman because what you have done is bad.
So, it rather surprises me that even today, among people who agree that Hopkins was awful for the views she vomited out in the Sun, it is perfectly acceptable to continue to describe at least a third of one’s fellow Britons as “lower than vermin”. Indeed, so acceptable that the Guardian actually sells T-shirts with this slogan on it.
What I am referring to is the following quote, routinely repeated nearly 70 years later from Nye Bevan on the eve of the founding of the NHS:
“That is why no amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party that inflicted those bitter experiences on me. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”
Considering that the speech was made only 3 years after the end of WWII when the true horror of dehumanisation should still have been fresh in the experience of most people, it can’t be claimed that this was a mere rhetorical flourish, no more than Hopkins can be excused for merely using “colourful” language. Of course, Bevan probably wasn’t arguing for a final solution for the Tory problem, but if dehumanising is bad in itself, the purposes it is used for can never be lofty enough to justify it.
My modest proposal is that if anyone believes, as Ed Miliband says, “Britain can do Better than this”, they need to start with accepting that those who disagree with their plans are not evil and are not lower than vermin. Is that OK?